Australia's Newest Marine Reserve Safeguards Sharks

CANBERRA, Australia, May 11, 2007 (ENS) - Habitat for a harmless shark that is one of Australia’s most threatened marine species was protected today by a new marine reserve in Commonwealth waters off Australia's east coast.

The Australian government announced the creation of a 300 hectare reserve to protect grey nurse sharks at the Cod Grounds, a key aggregation site about four miles off the New South Wales coast, near Port Macquarie.

The Cod Grounds Commonwealth Marine Reserve will come into effect on May 28, said the Department of Environment and Water Resources, DEWR, in a statement.

Historically, due to their fierce appearance and being mistaken for other sharks that pose a danger to humans, large numbers of grey nurse sharks were killed by recreational spear and line fishers and in shark control programs, particularly in southeastern Australia.

The greatest threat to the grey nurse shark is from fishing and accidental hooking, and shark finning. Despite legislation prohibiting their capture, there are now fewer than 500 individuals on the east coast and the population size continues to decrease.


The decline of grey nurse shark numbers has been recognized by the IUCN, which has listed the species as globally vulnerable. (Photo courtesy NCCNSW)
The Cod Grounds Commonwealth Marine Reserve has been declared as a strict nature reserve, and will be managed to ensure the undersea ecosystem and native species are protected. All commercial and recreational fishing will be prohibited in the reserve.

The DEWR has made arrangements with the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries to carry out compliance and enforcement activities within the reserve.

The Australian government is in the process of buying out the licenses of several commercial fishermen who have a history of fishing at the Cod Grounds. Adjustment assistance will also be considered for fishing cooperatives impacted by the buyout.

After a five year long campaign for protection of this shark species, the Humane Society International, HSI, is pleased with the new reserve but says there are 23 other grey nurse shark aggregation sites that also need protection.

HSI Program Manager Rebecca Keeble said, "While today’s announcement by the federal government is welcomed, a further 18 key grey nurse shark aggregation sites exist in NSW State waters, and four in Queensland waters," said Keeble.

"Although some of these are listed under state legislation as critical habitat sites, the vast majority offer inadequate protection to grey nurse shark aggregations, with sanctuary zones that are too small, and line-fishing allowed in adjacent areas," Keeble said.

"While all forms of fishing are banned within the Cod Grounds Commonwealth Marine Reserve, it really only effectively protects a 1,000 meter radius of grey nurse shark habitat, and we know that this needs to be increased to 1,500 meter to fully protect their aggregation," said Keeble.


Grey nurse sharks are often hooked by fishermen although they are not a target species. (Photo courtesy NCCNSW)
"A clear commitment to protecting this species needs to be made by establishing 1,500 meter no-take sanctuary zones at all grey nurse shark critical habitat sites," she said.

The grey nurse shark, Carcharias taurus, is one of only three fish species listed as Critically Endangered under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, EPBC, 1999.

The species has been recognized as a threatened species under Commonwealth, New South Wales and Queensland legislation as the direct result of HSI nominations, Keeble said.

The Cod Grounds was recognized in 2002 as a critical habitat for grey nurse sharks in the federal government’s Recovery Plan for the species but was not protected until today.

"The grey nurse shark plays an important role as a predator in coastal reef systems," said former Australian Environment Minister Dr. David Kemp in 2003. "Ecologically, sharks may play a crucial role in removing weak and unhealthy fish from natural stocks, thereby ensuring the genetic health of the ecosystem."

"Because the grey nurse shark is in such low numbers," Kemp said, "it is important that the population is restored to levels where it can fulfil its role in maintaining the natural balance in the ecosystem."

HSI is urging the NSW Environment Minister, Bob Debus; the Queensland Environment Minister Lindel Nelson-Carr; and, the Federal Minister for Environment and Water Resources, Malcolm Turnbull to protect all 24 identified grey nurse shark critical habitat sites "as a matter of urgency," by gazetting them as strict no-take marine reserves and listing them on the federal Register of Critical Habitat under the EPBC Act.

The NSW Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales has taken the issue of grey nurse shark protection to the courts. The group is appealing against the Australian government's environmental approval for the Ocean Trap and Line Fishery – a commercial fishery that is known to impact on the grey nurse shark.

The Nature Conservation Council is asking the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to mandate marine sanctuaries and fishing gear changes to reduce the impact of hook and line fishing on grey nurse sharks.

"Grey nurse sharks are known as the Labradors of the Sea. They are a harmless shark that has never been responsible for a human death," says the Nature Conservation Council.

There has been some action on the local level. The species' inability to recover from the mass decline in numbers since the 1960s at the hands of spearfishers, recreational and commercial fishers, last year prompted the NSW Fisheries Scientific Committee to propose the uplisting of this species to Critically Endangered under the Fisheries Management Act 1994.

Details of management arrangements for the new Cod Grounds Commonwealth Marine Reserve reserve, as well as maps and grid references, are available on the Department of the Environment and Water Resources website at: